Olivia Sudjic’s debut novel Sympathy is a dazzling examination of the morals and customs of our gadget-led lives, a sharp and slippery tale of unreliable identities and assumed connections. It’s narrated by 23-year-old Alice Hare, an unhinged Englishwoman in New York who becomes obsessed with the online presence of 32-year-old Mizuko Himura, a Japanese teacher and blogger who Alice identifies as her ‘internet twin’. As their real lives entangle to devastating effect, Alice is left to reconsider her hardwired habits and twisted worldview.

MR: You have a protagonist called Alice Hare, an epigraph from Lewis Carroll, and your home page features a plate from the Alice books. Are you trying to tell us we’re spending too much time staring into the looking-glass?

OS: What I felt was we’re doing too much looking without critical reflection. There are these really knee-jerk, instinctive things that we do every day which have become so blurred with our ‘real life’. Whereas we spent millennia working out our moral, ethical, philosophical take on things, the digital world just lacks that dimension. I started from a point of looking at my own habits and what it is that I do unthinkingly, as opposed to didactically or moralistically telling people what to do. But you’re right, the plate and the epigraph are both from Through the Looking-Glass and, not that it matters hugely but quite a lot of the time in interviews or reviews, people think it’s Alice in Wonderland, and actually the two books are pretty different. One is all about chaos, and the other is about this mirror world where there are rules and there are laws, but those laws are indecipherable. What I really wanted to suggest was that our world as we see it, the code is invisible, it lies behind everything, we don’t even understand the language, how the algorithms, etc. work. There are lots of rules, it’s not chaos, but it’s all another language and invisible to most people.

Your Alice is nicknamed Rabbit. Were you channeling Updike too?

Alice is someone who is so lacking in any stable sense of self or distinct identity that she borrows from everyone she interacts with online and in real life. Even in writing the book itself – although I imagined it was probably a blog – she’s mimicking Mizuko, who uses her own life in her fiction. The fact that Mizuko calls her Rabbit is obviously a very loaded Updike reference, and was supposed to do a number of things, one of which was to show that Alice borrows heavily from these traditions, from the cultural heritage and from Mizuko. Another was to suggest that a morally lost or morally confused character who goes through life using other people is seen as a bit more of a hero if they’re male and appear in an Updike book, whereas if they’re female and marginalised they tend to have less of a reader’s sympathy.

We imagine ourselves to have really tried to get to know someone, but actually all we’ve done is skimmed the surface in quite a superficial way.”

At the end of the book, Alice acknowledges that “My reflections amount to a love story that is mostly made up, from memories that are mostly false, between people who were mainly not there.” Despite our hyper-connectivity, are intimacy and empathy more difficult to come by than ever before?

I definitely think we imagine them to be easier than ever before, and certainly a lot more convenient, the way they happen at the touch of a button and all the hard work is done for you, whether it’s an algorithm or metadata – you know, the idea that the internet can find the perfect match for you. So what I think that does is make you feel like you’ve done the work, and therefore the real, messy stuff of real intimacy can get ticked off the to-do list. We imagine ourselves to have really tried to get to know someone, but actually all we’ve done is skimmed the surface in quite a superficial way. I don’t think it’s necessarily a block or a barrier to intimacy, but just like the way the city promises proximity to other people and that alone is not enough to dispel loneliness, you have to actively go out and meet people and develop relationships. Alice imagines that all relationships are as simple and easy as interactions online where you have complete control, not understanding that the other person in the relationship has their own separate subjectivity and their own needs and desires that may not match up with hers.

Are we doomed to only a partial understanding of copious amounts of stuff in the digital age?

I don’t think any of this is necessarily about doom. I’m very much pro the original idea of the internet making everything accessible and open, the Tim Berners-Lee utopian idea of the web. But where we’ve got to is that we’ve allowed corporations and governments to encroach on that freedom, and what was once open is becoming increasingly ‘personalised’, or surveillance-led, and that actually narrows our understanding of what knowledge is. So on Facebook the news that reaches us is stuff we’ve clicked on once or twice before. We’re in a feedback loop, which means that just as we imagine our intimacy to be much easier, we imagine all information is closer to us, but actually the knowledge that we’re getting is this very filtered version, and so we are probably apt to make more mistakes, imagining ourselves to be more empowered than we are.

What I feel is different about the age of connectivity is that it’s moving so much faster than the speed of humans; that our technology has outpaced us to the degree that human understanding is no longer at the centre of it. I understand how a hammer works, right? But I don’t really understand – and nobody understands, because it’s kept so secret – how Facebook shows you the news it shows you, or how Google ranks its search listings.

As you suggest, our gadgets and apps present themselves as ‘intuitive’, but in fact they are controlling us. So how do we balance our privacy against convenience?

That was definitely the kind of dichotomy I was looking at. When I first began writing it, the reason the book was originally called Sympathy was because of a seventeenth-century medicine/technology called ‘sympathy powder’, which people imagined could connect you across time and space. And whilst I was trying to write that book, set in the seventeenth century, I kept trying to balance out the convenience of being able to find out everything I could about that online, and then blocking out the internet to actually write the book. So in many ways I started off from the position that the internet was my enemy – the enemy of concentration, the enemy of long-form writing, the enemy of the publishing industry, the enemy of characters and plot – whereby you can instantly find out anything you want to know, which kills most plots. But the typical thing with writing is you turn a bad experience, a painful episode or whatever into art, and gradually I got to the point where I thought, “Well, the internet will bow to my will at least in this respect: I’ll make a book out of it.”

Sometimes at a reading, someone will come up to me afterwards and say, ‘I follow you on Instagram, and I want to say hello, but I don’t want you to think I’m doing what Alice does!’”

How much time do you spend online in a typical day?

A lot. I only got Instagram for the book, and I don’t have Twitter. But I got Instagram because I really wanted to explore the visual element as primary. I was reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography, and I imagine if she’d been writing now and had Instagram to talk about as well, it would’ve exploded her brain! Images are more ambiguous than text in terms of their meaning, they’re much more open to interpretation. We imagine ourselves to sympathise, let’s say, with a journalist’s war photography, but actually it creates distance. So I got Instagram for writing the book, and now it’s become almost my diary. I’ve got two; one is my private, personal one and one is public, and that’s partly out of a low-grade paranoia about random people knowing about my life, but also as much because I don’t want to inflict my self-promotion on my friends and family. The private one also helps because when you’re talking quite regularly about a manic character who loses her grip on reality, all those themes of paranoia and anxiety can take hold. Sometimes I find myself wishing I’d written the book under a pseudonym…

So the public account is to try and separate those two out, but it does mean I spend basically all day every day online. There are good elements of that; one is that I’ve met other bookish, writery people. I didn’t do a creative writing course or anything like that, so I didn’t have that network. And also it’s quite funny because it adds that meta layer to the book whereby sometimes at a reading, someone will come up to me afterwards and say, “I follow you on Instagram, and I want to say hello, but I don’t want you to think I’m doing what Alice does!” But more than anything, it just makes me feel like I can speak with a little more confidence, rather than sounding like I’m out of touch, or coming from a Luddite, ‘technology is bad’-type angle.

Illustration from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass by John Tenniel, 1871

So you studied English, but not creative writing. At what point did you decide you wanted to write this novel?

I’d written short stories and poems at school, and then doing English at university had not an opposite effect, but it turned me into more of a critic, someone who breaks things down all the time as opposed to wanting to construct something of their own. Then after I graduated all I wanted to do was read non-fiction. It was a bit like when someone catches their kid smoking and they make them smoke a twenty-pack all by themselves in a shed: I thought I’d had my limit of fiction, and I was sworn off it for a few years. And then I guess as a graduate in a recession, a combination of financial/parental anxieties were driving my decisions and I’d done a lot of internships and a lot of maternity covers in newspapers, and then I went to work for a think-tank outfit for a bit, and I just got further and further away from the thing that made me feel the most myself when I was 18. So I got to a point where I looked back and realised I’d got far out in the boat from my original plan. I didn’t take a gap year, and at 25 I just thought if I’m going to do this, then now’s the time. I haven’t got high up any particular career ladder – I’d been doing more of a job safari – and so I thought, if I step off now, it won’t feel a particular wrench. I also really wanted to do something on my own, and the beauty of writing, especially fiction, is that you don’t need anything to begin. Having never been outside of an institution before, whether that’s a job or university or school, it was so nice to just suddenly set off and only need a laptop. I don’t know if I’d have been able to do that if I’d been ten years older. I felt like it was a now or never moment.

So you travelled to Japan and then New York…

Yes, when I was still planning the seventeenth-century novel it was going to be mainly set in Japan when the country was closed off to the rest of the world in their seclusion period, and I just liked the idea of this tiny, totally secluded and homogenous society suddenly being cracked open by this new technology, the sympathy powder. So I went to Japan, but obviously what I met with was modern-day Tokyo, and that amazement of going somewhere that just really isn’t like anywhere else, where every design principle almost makes you feel like you’re in a videogame because the same principles have informed everything that you see.

Then I went to New York – actually not to write about New York at all – but my grandmother lived there at the time, and she was the only member of my family who was like, “Sure, you should write a book! Why don’t you come and live with me? You won’t have to earn that much money while you’re doing it, and you won’t have to pay rent for a bit.” And basically it was a way of getting away from my very well-meaning but anxious parents and even my friends. If you’re not going to do a creative writing course, then moving abroad for a bit gives you a mandate to sit in coffee shops and not just feel unemployed. So I left and went there, and whilst I was there, a bit like with the internet, the city got a stranglehold on the book. Looking back, I think I needed to go away and get what Mizuko calls ‘stranger’s eyes’, to change my mode of attention.

How intense was the writing in New York? Did you get through a first draft quite quickly?

Nope! I did a lot of walking… As well as trying to set the book in the past, I was very self-conscious about the idea of using a first-person female narrator – I really didn’t want to do that in the beginning, I wanted to totally mask off any autobiographical elements. I feel that, especially if you’re a woman, then it always ends up being about you no matter how large your vision of the world is. But after a while I felt I wanted to situate myself, an author figure, somewhere in there, and so a girl going to New York to stay with her grandmother felt like the only way I could begin. It’s hardly like I was writing about a remote village in the middle of Wales or something, it’s New York and I think people have done that in literature before, so after a while I just felt I needed to locate myself in the story to get started.

I basically wrote the entirety of the book after I left New York, from January to September 2015, and of that the first three chapters were January to May, and the rest, thirty other chapters, from May to September. So it was written in a kind of fever dream, and when the book was sold that October, it was crying out for an editor. In January or February 2016 Houghton Mifflin and Pushkin sent me their edits. What they did was broadly decide they were in agreement before sending their notes to me, so I technically had an American set and an English set, but there were only one or two instances where they mentioned the same thing but were at odds with each other. So I had these two sets of notes plus my own, and I was sitting in the middle of my floor trying to find a system for it, and at the time I was like, “I shouldn’t have written a book, I should’ve written an app for helping people edit their book!” But it wasn’t that painful because what they mainly wanted was to draw the thread of technology tighter.

I wanted it to be a game of chess, as Alice says, a perfect information game where every move you can make is all there at the beginning, and the way that the unreliable narrator begins to order that is the plot. Originally I didn’t want there to be speech marks, I wanted to do various things with it that were perhaps more formally in tune with the idea of it being a blog or something that would appear online, but some of that was lost in the copyedit. That said, I didn’t set out to write an internet novel, which is funny because now I feel like I’ve accidentally ended up being a spokesperson for technology and I didn’t set out to write about technology, it was more about an age-old problem of not being able to know anyone else’s true self.

I wanted to look at how the gaps between generations are getting narrower and narrower – and actually it’s almost now iPhone generations that are the real defining factor.”

Among the intergenerational differences in the book, the nine-year gap between Alice and Mizuko is perhaps the most significant. Mizuko recognises the internet as a tool for self-promotion, but Alice is embedded and bases her whole identity on her digital presence.

Well, when I wrote it I was 25, so older than Alice, and I chose 23 as an age for Alice because that was, by a straw poll, the age at which the majority of my friends had their mini post-graduation breakdowns. But yes, I wanted to look at how the gaps between generations are getting narrower and narrower – and actually it’s almost now iPhone generations that are the real defining factor, every five or seven years everything changes – and how that maroons people. Between people who would once have been in the same kind of bracket, the gulf in their experience is actually vast.

There’s an Olivia Laing essay that came out in the Guardian before she wrote Lonely City, where she talks about how characters in twenty-first-century novels are completely porous and don’t really have a stable sense of self, it’s all about cannibalising and being cannibalised by other people. Mizuko manages to close off Alice and create these protective walls at the same time as she uses the lives of other people and herself in her writing, but Alice lacks all of those borders or markers, and in the end she gets to the point where basically you’re just seeing her skin, her natural barrier, and nothing lasting or essential beyond it.

You’ve started your next novel. How far in are you, and how is it shaping up?

I have got a lot of notes and a plot and a title, and I’ve given myself July–August–September to turn that into a first draft. Obviously I’m still in Sympathy mode and between dreams you have to have a waking day, but the problem with that is the longer I delay, the more my notes accumulate, and what I want to do this time that’s quite different from Sympathy is not start with a accumulation of stuff and then whittle it away like sculpting from rock. This time I want it to be more like I deliberately placed clay in the form I wanted. The more I amass notes, I worry, the harder it will be just to start at the beginning and go through deliberately, word by word. But hopefully a first draft by the end of September, and it will inevitably change as I go just like Sympathy did. It’s about a small community in London who live in one house together, so a much more narrow focus in terms of location and geography, and I’m trying to do away with ‘themes’. I also want to not have a first-person narrator. Although that was perfect for the limited-perspective, unreliable, claustrophobic mental confusion of Sympathy, with this one I want to kind of give myself a bit of a break and hover above my characters.

And what pressure are you under to deliver it?

No pressure – except financial. And also personal pressure in that I would love to get to the point where I don’t feel synonymous with Sympathy, I’m no longer in a one-to-one ratio with it, where that’s an idea, a book, it’s not me. I’m eager to spread out. Also one thing I’ve definitely worked out, even though conversations like this are really happy, I have not taken to or enjoyed the post-publication element of the writing craft as much as I imagined I would given that I’m an outgoing person who likes being sociable. I found that more exposing and anxious-making than I could’ve predicted. The nice bit of that is knowing that the part I really enjoy lies ahead: the private writing, crafting and editing.


Olivia_Sudjic_290Olivia Sudjic was born in London in 1988 and studied English Literature at Cambridge, where she was awarded the E.G. Harwood English Prize and made a Bateman Scholar. She has written for publications including FT WeekendElle, The Sunday Times Style, The Debrief and the Observer. Sympathy is out now in hardback and eBook from ONE, an imprint of Pushkin Press. Read more.

Author portrait © Colin Thomas

Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.